Labor’s vexing new tactic could backfire on the streets of Norwood

State Labor’s latest tactics in the Dunstan by-election are based on a hyper-partisan approach to politics which could alienate the voters it needs to win, argues David Washington.

Mar 05, 2024, updated Mar 05, 2024
Tom Koutsantonis has been Labor's designated hard campaigner for years. Photo: Andre Castellucci

Tom Koutsantonis has been Labor's designated hard campaigner for years. Photo: Andre Castellucci

In a new political tactic, Labor’s dirt unit has held on to a job application from a young woman for years and then released it in full to exact as much political damage as possible.

Labor seems to think it’s a masterstroke.

People in the electorate who aren’t living inside the hyper-partisan bubbles of the major parties may well see this as distasteful, inappropriate and creepy.

Applying for a job is a vulnerable experience – the idea that a potential employer would retain your application to use as a political hand grenade in the future would be a grotesque thought for most people.

The young woman under fire in this circumstance is Dr Anna Finizio, the Liberal candidate for the Dunstan byelection.

Funnily enough, her CV – which you could read in full in The Advertiser last week along with a cover letter applying for a job – is objectively impressive, probably more so than many of those working in Labor’s electoral war-room.

She has a Law degree and a PhD from the University of Adelaide in global food and agribusiness. She won the Faculty of Sciences Outstanding Achievement Award in 2011 and 2012. She’s worked as a solicitor, a policy lawyer for the Law Society of SA, a ministerial adviser, and a manager at PwC, consulting in public policy and economics.

In 2020, while she was working for the Law Society, Finizio applied for a policy adviser’s job in the office of then Shadow Attorney-General Kyam Maher.

Maybe she thought this would be a job developing ideas to make South Australia’s justice system better.

Anna Finizio on her Facebook page, meeting the locals at Glynburn Gourmet.

Maybe she thought Maher was a decent bloke who was developing an interesting policy agenda.

Maybe she just needed a new job that matched her skills.

But according to Labor’s Tom Koutsantonis, the party’s designated campaign aggressor, the focus of this role was none of these things.

Its key aim, he said, was to help bring down the Marshall Government.

And that’s about all you need to know about modern political practice in Australia.

Finizio didn’t get an interview and went on to work for a series of Marshall Government ministers before being endorsed as a federal Liberal candidate and then, this year, a state candidate for Steven Marshall’s seat of Dunstan.

Her crime – in the hyper-partisan world of major party campaigners – is a naivety about the reality of political service in 21st century Australia: it’s not about making things better, developing creative ideas, or synthesising different perspectives to create a more effective outcome for the community.

It’s about being loyal to your side.

It’s about winning, no matter what.

If I was Kyam Maher, a politician of integrity, I would be deeply uncomfortable with last week’s events.

A “government spokesman” last week denied that Maher or his office released the job application. Koutsantonis, though, admitted it was Labor who dumped the CV and job application to News Corp (who duly published it in full, describing Finizio as a “dunce” and adding an excoriating editorial as a kicker).

But just as former Labor MP Annabel Digance eventually publicly disowned her party’s awful “Can you trust Habib?” campaign in the seat of Elder, Maher may come to realise the implications of this gambit.

Maybe he does already.

It’s not that the SA Liberals don’t try to dump dirt, it’s just that Labor is so much more ruthless about it.

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And, of course, leaks can be in the public interest. Both sides have been pushing out material in this by-election campaign in an attempt to damage the other.

But this particular case has a different flavour: it’s predicated on the idea that political partisanship is more important than political substance.

Finizio’s position as a policy centrist is hardly hidden.

Anyone who has been paying attention knows what she stands for. She’s been courageous enough to call out culture warriors on her own side of politics.

While Labor’s “leak” might make political sense inside its ultra-masculine campaign machine, there’s a real risk its tactics could backfire, particularly given Dunstan’s demographic profile.

There are many women in Dunstan whose lives look something like Anna Finizio’s. Some have already made their disgust known with Labor’s tactic.

Elections are won and lost by swinging voters – people who are, by definition, not wedded to either major party; people who are, by and large, pragmatic centrists; people who, as the success of the “Teal” movement indicates, just might be prepared to support candidates based on their character and ideas, not their political branding.

Martin Hamilton-Smith, Liberal leader turned minister in the Weatherill Government, with Cabinet colleagues Tom Koutsantonis and Jack Snelling in 2017. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Don Dunstan, Labor’s totemic Premier, campaigned for the Liberal and Country League in his youth.

Koutsantonis happily sat in a cabinet room with Martin Hamilton-Smith – a former Liberal leader who branded himself as an independent Liberal after he joined the Weatherill Labor government’s ministry.

Current state Labor MP Erin Thompson once campaigned for a Liberal candidate – a friend – at a state election.

In fact, Thompson only joined the Labor Party in the months before the 2022 election. She still managed to win the previously safe Liberal seat of Davenport with a swing of more than 11 per cent.

Her bipartisan history didn’t damage her campaign. Maybe it enhanced it. Likewise, Hamilton-Smith was one of the better ministers in the Weatherill administration, certainly one of the more active and creative, with the value of his ideas and alternative views lauded by Koutsantonis himself on his retirement from politics.

Of course, it’s possible Labor doesn’t really believe that being momentarily attracted to a position with one of its senior MPs is a misjudgement so heinous that it should rule someone out of a political career.

It’s possible, rather, that their “total war” approach to politics has pushed them to the edge of, and then over, an ethical precipice.

But they won’t see the logic of this argument.

In the world of the hyper-partisan, criticism is not an opportunity for reflection – it’s just another enemy to be defeated.

Notes on Adelaide is a weekly column reflecting on the city, its strengths and its foibles. You can read more Notes on Adelaide in SALIFE’s print editions.

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